Tag Archives: 2015

Ashes and Diamonds: Andrzej Wajda on Directing

Ashes and Diamonds is the third among a trilogy of war films that spurred Steven Spielberg to write a passionate letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recommending its Polish Director Andrzej Wajda for an Honorary Oscar, which he subsequently won in 2000.

Wajda was born in Poland on March 6, 1926, thus having his formative years shaped by events leading to World War II and the war itself. The aftermath of the War also heavily influenced his film-making career because he had to work under a Communist regime where censorship limited creative production. Since censors paid attention more to dialog than images, Wajda slyly filmed his movies accordingly.

An example: the end of Ashes and Diamonds shows the hero dying in a waste disposal landfill site. Wajda informed the censors that this scene could be translated as “whoever raises his hand against People’s Poland will end up on the rubbish heap of history.” However, Polish audiences interpreted the scene in a different light.

A workaholic, Wajda has been prolific in making films, TV programs, and stage productions in an active career that has spanned from the 1950’s to his most recent film, Walesa, A Man of Hope, released in 2012.

On directing movies in Wajda’s own words:

The good Lord provided the director with two eyes — one to look into the camera, the other to observe intently everything that is going on around him. It is a skill which you should develop and endlessly improve until you stop making movies (in the case of those trying to make political films this might happen at any moment, so time is running out!). For example: when the camera starts running, the director should watch and see simultaneously:

* how the actors are playing;
* what the crew members are doing: are they watching the take so that later they will be able to draw conclusions who’s responsible for what?
* whether the lights haven’t been moved: do they illumine the actors as agreed? (basically, this is the operator’s job, but it is worth taking note of)
* the sky: can the take be completed before the clouds obscure the sun?
* that actor walking over the rails; is he going to brush his sleeve against a priceless Chinese vase?
* the microphone, already dangerously low; is it going to get into the frame?
* and many, many other things, happening on location.

This seems not only difficult but almost impossible; however, do you recall your first, terrifying experience when driving a car? Many years ago my friend, the known film critic Boleslaw Michalek, bought his first automobile. He wasn’t too sure of himself behind the driving wheel, so he asked somebody to help him drive the car from the factory. But when they went out of the gate and into the street, the driver said with a tremor in his voice: “I’ll concentrate on the engine and you just watch the road” — because he too was a beginner. After a few minutes, they landed in a ditch.

Many years ago, at the start of my career as a director, I used to ask my assistants to take notes for me of some things during a take. This inevitably led to misunderstandings, and the evaluated material usually turned out to be disastrous. Unfortunately, this is a job the director cannot share. The members of the crew must know that at any given moment he is in control and has an eye on absolutely everything; only then will they accept his wishes and work really effectively.

For a comprehensive and thorough study on Wajda and his works, read Michael Brooke’s well-written piece called, “Andrzej Wajda – An Introduction.”


*Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Producer). (2000). Jane Fonda presents an Honorary Oscar® to Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rImCpUzwGx0

* Brooke, M. (6 May 2008). Andrzej Wajda – An Introduction. Retrieved from https://michaelbrooke.wordpress.com/andrzej-wajda-an-introduction/

* Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and Nonsense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.): Northwestern University

*Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes Are For Ever. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/ashes-are-for-ever

*Yakir, D. (1984). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from http://www.filmcomment.com/author/dan-yakir/

Ashes and Diamonds: Wajda and Socialist Realism

The official socialist realist system—with its predictable conflicts, its negative types and positive heroes, and its progressive and optimistic resolutions, encouraged the production of grossly distorted representations of actual life and actual history.—Eagle (1982)

The essence of a political film is in speaking about what is unspoken; in exposing what is concealed; in unveiling the realities behind the events.—Wajda quoted in Yakir (1984)

It is interesting to observe that through our first-ever “Fall Film Competition,” the group has quite serendipitously assembled a collection of films that can arguably be considered “Films of Social Defiance.” Even though not all can be classified under an official rubric of revolution, all four are enlightening with respect to a time of radical change in a cultural or national sense. Ashes and Diamonds is celebrated for its appeal to an oppressed people who hear a voice that resonates with them in its representations and symbolism that defies socialist realism mandates. Continue reading Ashes and Diamonds: Wajda and Socialist Realism

Summer and Smoke: Elia Kazan’s Letter to Tennessee Williams

Opportunities are everywhere, one has to be alert to seize them. Recently, I vacationed in California with a dear friend, Jane, who lives in Texas. Our movie group came up during one conversation and I mentioned Summer and Smoke as our first movie for the fall. Jane promptly replied with information about her friend’s daughter who is married to Albert Devlin, a Tennessee Williams scholar credited with editing two books of the famous playwright’s letters. When presented with this connection, I was intrigued to learn that Jane’s book club traveled to New Orleans for the Tennessee Williams Festival and, Continue reading Summer and Smoke: Elia Kazan’s Letter to Tennessee Williams

The Birdcage: Can We Learn from Our Films?

Many have mourned the loss of Robin Williams and his comic genius. In revisiting his films, we can consider aspects of his work that may have changed us all without realizing it.

[W]hat makes the film interesting is that [Robin Williams] must play against type, toning down his manic persona in the face of Lane’s hilarious over-the-top turn.
—Chuck Koplinski, The News-Gazette

You do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or, Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or, Madonna, Madonna, Madonna! … but, you keep it all inside.
—Armand, The Birdcage

genre comedyA comedian has been described as a person who seeks to entertain audiences, primarily by making them laugh. Filmmakers employ comedy in the same way, seeking to make their targeted audiences laugh. How do they do this? We have learned from our series on comedy that they do this in a number of different ways—using social satire, slapstick, etc. Might they do this also as a way to dispel prejudice against certain groups or against certain individual characteristics? Alternatively, might screenwriters focus so totally on what to them seems funny that the result is irresponsibly mean?

Comedy Is Where Filmmaking Began

We have learned a little (and witnessed a lot ourselves over our lifetimes) about how filmmaking has evolved since the beginning of the cinema. At the outset, comedy was central to explorations with the medium. Imagine our positioning comedy films in chronological order of release date in order to assess our culture in stages of social adaptation and advancement. Where would films about same-sex relationships come in? Could we track and assess social attitudes about this topic with this method?

Movies about Same-sex Relationships

The following movies are among many others that include this cultural component:

8: the Mormon Proposition (2010) And the Band Played on (1993) The Bird Cage (1996)
Boys Don’t Cry (1999) But I’m a Cheerleader (2000) The Celluloid Closet (1995)
The Children’s Hour  (1961) Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean (1982) Desert Hearts (1985)
Far from Heaven (2002) Go Fish (1994) How to Survive a Plague (2012)
The Imitation Game (2014) The Kids Are Alright (2010) Fire (1996)
The Laramie Project (2002) The Matthew Shepard Story (2002) Milk (2008)
Philadelphia (1993) Pride (2014) Kinky Boots (2005)
Queens (Reinas) (2005)  Maurice (1987) Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Nemar (1995) Torch Song Trilogy (1988) Transamerica (2005)
 Brokeback Mountain (2005)  The Danish Girl (2015) Carol (2015)

Does our present film show gay men in an unflattering light or not? —as “the other,” not fitting our preconceived ideal or image of a “normal” man? Alternatively, are the depictions of relationships or cultural/societal settings so enjoyably funny as to diminish the focus on gay men, and thus are the characterizations harmless—or even helpful? I would like to know how a gay man felt about this movie in 1996 when it was first released, or even now for that matter.

Dirk Shafer, a “Closeted” Gay Man

Dirk Shafer, who died this year, posed nude as a Playgirl model in earlier decades and wrote about his experiences. Posing as a sex object for straight women, he had to portray himself as a straight man to keep his job (Stack, 2015). Man of the Year, a fictionalized version of his life story, explores the tension of being a “closeted” gay man. The film was a public “coming-out” for Shafer and, as one might imagine, his nude modeling career slowed after the publication.

In a review in The New York Times, Holden (1996) wrote this about the film:

On a deeper level, Man of the Year treats Mr. Shafer’s modeling experience as a metaphor for the way society pressures gay people to act straight. After watching Mr. Shafer wriggle uncomfortably inside the role he has agreed to play, it comes as a relief when he finally abandons it.

We have learned that during the days of the studio system, a number of film stars hid their sexual orientation in order to keep their jobs or simply their privacy: Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift (Petersen, 2014) and others. Did anyone really think about this aspect of Liberace’s life when he was at the peak of his career?

The Birdcage Shows a Committed Relationship

The Birdcage
Nathan Lane and Robin Williams

Through The Birdcage, we can experience the lifestyle and social issues of gay men in a committed relationship, much as we can experience the life of the President and First Lady through Netflix’ House of Cards. I thought of the term “virtual reality” to describe the immersive environment of a film that is so well presented that one can be transported into the scene and experience the action and emotion first hand.


Comic climate

The comic climate, in contrast to verisimilitude, often requires of the audience a suspension of belief.

Social satire

The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule in a text in order to expose and criticize social groups, often in the context of contemporary politics, customs, and popular trends.


Parody makes fun of or re-creates what people do. Parody is a frequent ingredient in satire and is often used to make social and political points. Characters or settings belonging to one work are used in a humorous or ironic way in another.


A comedian or comic is a person who seeks to entertain an audience primarily by making them laugh. This might be through jokes or amusing situations, or acting a fool, as in slapstick, or employing prop comedy. A comedian who addresses an audience directly is called a stand-up comic.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is an artificial, computer-generated environment that is aided by hardware devices such that the user suspends belief and experiences it as real.


Drag is used for any clothing carrying symbolic significance, but usually referring to the clothing associated with one gender role when worn by a person of another gender.

Drag queen

A drag queen is a person, usually male, who dresses in drag and often acts with exaggerated femininity and in feminine gender roles. Often they will exaggerate certain characteristics such as make-up and eyelashes for comic, dramatic, or satirical effect.


Briggs, K. C. (2013). Trans, Genderqueer, and Queer Terms Glossary.   Retrieved from https://lgbt.wisc.edu/documents/Trans_and_queer_glossary.pdf

Ebert, R. (1996, Mar 8). The Birdcage, Movie review and film summary. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-birdcage-1996

Koplinski, C. (2015, Mar 19). Film capsules, March 19, 2015. Champagne, Ill: The News-Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.news-gazette.com/arts-entertainment/local/2015-03-19/film-capsules-march-19-2015.html

Nichols, M. (Director, Producer). (1996). The Birdcage [Motion Picture]. USA: United Artists.

Petersen, A. H. (2014, Sep 23). Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Long Suicide of Montgomery Clift.  Vanity Fair. Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/09/scandals-of-classic-hollywood-montgomery-clift

Scott, A. O. (2014, Aug 11). Robin Williams, an improvisational genius, forever present in the moment. New York City: The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/movies/robin-williams-an-improvisational-genius-forever-present-in-the-moment.html

Stack, L. (2015, Mar 7). Dirk Shafer, Playgirl centerfold who revealed he was gay, dies at 52. New York City: The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/arts/dirk-shafer-playgirl-centerfold-who-revealed-he-was-gay-dies-at-52.html

Zur, O., & Wolz, B. (2015). Therapeutic themes and relevant movies: addendums to movie therapy, reel therapy, or cinema therapy. Retrieved from http://www.zurinstitute.com/movietherapy.html#lgbt